Tag Archives: criminal defamation

Notes from a Foreign Field: The Constitutional Court of Lesotho Strikes Down Criminal Defamation

In a terse, 37-page judgment delivered last week, the Constitutional Court of Lesotho struck down criminal defamation as unconstitutional. The judgment repays some scrutiny, because many of the arguments raised – and addressed – by the Court are similar to the arguments that were made in the unsuccessful constitutional challenge to criminal defamation in India two years ago. Further, the Lesotho Constitutional Court’s application of the global proportionality standard to invalidate criminal defamation shows a potential path forward here, where proportionality has come to the fore after the judgment in Puttaswamy.

The constitutional challenge in Lesotho arose out of criminal proceedings against a satirical article that mocked the Commander of the Lesotho Defence Forces. The author of the article was accordingly prosecuted. Section 104 of the Lesotho Penal Code defined criminal defamation in terms somewhat similar to the IPC. The relevant defences – also akin to the IPC – included proving that the material was true and for public benefit, or establishing legal privilege.

Section 14 of the Constitution of Lesotho guaranteed the right to freedom of speech and expression. The section also authorised restrictions upon the freedom of speech, including, inter alia, “for the purpose of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other persons (interestingly, the Section also provided for a right of reply).

The Court began its analysis by noting the intrinsic and instrumental benefits of the freedom of expression in a democracy (paragraph 8). These are well-worn by now, and do not need repetition. In particular, the Court focused on the importance of satire in a democracy, and the need for any guarantee of the freedom of speech to protect satire (paragraph 9) – especially where “public figures” such as the (former) Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force were concerned, who ought to “display a higher degree of tolerance” (compare this with the Indian Supreme Court’s invented doctrine of “historically respectable personalities). Within this framework, the Court then applied the three-step proportionality standard to decide whether criminal defamation was constitutional. This standard – in the form that the Court endorsed – requires, first, that a restriction upon rights be imposed only through a law, which has a rational connection with the goal; secondly, that the law impair rights only to the minimal extent necessary to achieve the State interest; and thirdly, that there be an overall balancing between the extent to which the right is infringed, and the importance of the goal (paragraph 16).

Criminal defamation cleared the first hurdle, which was a rational connection with the legitimate State interest of protecting reputation. However, it fell at the second hurdle, that of minimal impairment. The Court found, first, that the law was over-broad and vague, inter alia, because the defence of “public benefit” had not been defined, and that “anything could be characterised as not being for “public benefit” due to the elasticity of this concept” (paragraph 18). In particular, by using this concept as a filter, the Court noted that “the Legislature has granted an unfettered discretion to the Prosecutorial authorities”, which would inevitably cast a chilling effect upon freedom of speech and expression (paragraph 18). The Court also found that through its requirement of “truth”, the Section effectively criminalised satire which, by its nature, “exaggerates and distorts reality” (paragraph 18).

Next, the Court held that criminal defamation also failed on the third prong of proportionality – that of a balance between the goal of protecting reputation, and its curtailment of speech. This included the very real possibility of self-censorship, and the existence of civil remedies (paragraph 19), which helped to achieve the same goal without the stigma, direct targeting, and greater punishments that defined the criminal legal regime. The Court closed with noting that the international trend – from a recent judgment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (paragraph 21) to international legal instruments (paragraphs 22 – 23) – was towards holding that criminal defamation was no longer consistent with the requirements of democratic societies. The Court therefore concluded:

“The means used to achieve the purpose of protecting reputation interests, in some instances, are overbroad and vague in relation to the freedom of expression guarantee in Section 14 of the Constitution. Furthermore, having concluded that criminal defamation laws have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression, and that, civil remedies for reputational encroachment are more suited towards redressing such reputational harm, I have come to the conclusion that the extent of the above-mentioned sections’ encroachment on the freedom of expression is “not reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”” (paragraph 24)

Criminal defamation was, accordingly, struck down.

In light of the Lesotho Constitutional Court’s judgment, and before it, in recent times, the judgment of the High Court of Kenya and the African Human Rights Court (both holding criminal defamation to be unconstitutional, in different ways), the Indian Supreme Court’s rambling, near-incoherent, 268-page judgment in Subramanian Swamy v Union of India (2016), which invented new doctrines such as “constitutional fraternity” in order to uphold criminal defamation as constitutional, seems more and more anachronistic. That apart, however, the Lesotho judgment suggests a way forward: in Swamythe two-judge bench of the Supreme Court did not examine the constitutionality of criminal defamation on the three-step proportionality standard. Many of the arguments made before the Lesotho constitutional court – including overbreadth and vagueness, the chilling effect of terms such as “public good”, and the disproportionality of criminal remedies, were dismissed by the Court without a serious examination under the proportionality standard. In Puttaswamy, however, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court definitively incorporated the global proportionality standard into Indian constitutional law. In addition to Swamy’s failure to consider may relevant constitutional arguments (see here), this now makes the case for revisiting that judgment even stronger.

In Puttaswamy, the Court acknowledged – within the short span of five years – that its judgment in Koushal v Naz Foundation had been a mistake. This is to the Court’s credit. It would be equally to its credit to acknowledge that its judgment from two years ago, in Subramanian Swamy, was as grave a mistake – and to join the growing ranks of post-colonial countries that have consigned this anachronistic provision to the dustin of history.


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Filed under Comparative Constitutional Law, Defamation, Free Speech, Lesotho

Why the Supreme Court’s Criminal Defamation Judgment is Per Incuriam

In common law, a judgment that is per incuriam has no legal force or validity, and does not count as precedent. Classically, per incuriam is a very narrow concept, applicable only in two circumstances: to a judgment that is passed in ignorance of a relevant statutory provision, or without considering binding precedent of a coordinate or larger bench. In 2015, however, in Sundeep Kumar Bafna v State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of per incuriam, noting that:

“It cannot be over-emphasised that the discipline demanded by a precedent or the disqualification or diminution of a decision on the application of the per incuriam rule is of great importance, since without it, certainty of law, consistency of rulings and comity of Courts would become a costly casualty. A decision or judgment can be per incuriam any provision in a statute, rule or regulation, which was not brought to the notice of the Court. A decision or judgment can also be per incuriam if it is not possible to reconcile its ratio with that of a previously pronounced judgment of a Co-equal or Larger Bench; or if the decision of a High Court is not in consonance with the views of this Court. It must immediately be clarified that the per incuriam rule is strictly and correctly applicable to the ratio decidendi and not to obiter dicta. It is often encountered in High Courts that two or more mutually irreconcilable decisions of the Supreme Court are cited at the Bar. We think that the inviolable recourse is to apply the earliest view as the succeeding ones would fall in the category of per incuriam.”

The expansion of the doctrine of per incuriam in the Indian context makes sense, for at least two reasons. The first is the proliferation of two-judge benches of the Supreme Court pronouncing on important constitutional issues, and invariably at odds with each other. Recent examples include Koushal and NALSADevidas Tuljapurkar and Aveek Sarkar, and (as I shall explain) Subramaniam Swamy (the present judgment) and R. Rajagopal. As the Supreme Court correctly notes in Bafna, “certainty of law” and “consistency of rulings” is a very important principle (one of the basic constituents of the rule of law), and given the sheer volume of cases being decided by two-judge benches, it must be applied with greater rigour.

The second reason is that at present, judgments tend to reproduce submissions of counsel at great length, including cases cited by counsel. The reasoning of the judgment, however, fails to engage with those judgments in any meaningful way, apart from – once again – reciting them while describing the law on the point. A good example is Rajbala vs State of Haryana, where the Justice Chelameswar held that the arbitrariness doctrine under Article 14 could not be used to strike down legislation. This was contrary to the binding decision in Mardia Chemicals. That case was not considered while arriving at the above conclusion, but is nonetheless found in the judgment, in a footnote while reproducing counsel’s submissions. A strict application of per incuriam in such a situation would defeat the purpose of the doctrine itself, since what it stipulates is that a Court is bound to consider precedent (although, having once considered it, it can choose to read it in a way that is obviously incorrect – in such a situation, the latter decision will then become binding law.

It is my submission that Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India is per incuriam on both the narrow and the broad conceptions of the doctrine. It is per incuriam because of its failure to consider the ratio of R. Rajagopal vs State of Tamil Nadu, that is, the finding that a regime of no-fault liability in defamation causes a chilling effect upon free speech.

Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India mentions Rajagopal at exactly one point in the 268-page long judgment: at page 5 of the judgment (paragraph 2), where it cites the passage in Rajagopal stating that:

“In all this discussion, we may clarify, we have not gone into the impact of Article 19(1)(a) read with clause (2) thereof on Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. That may have to await a proper case.”

Let us now come to Subramaniam Swamy’s consideration of the chilling effect. The Court holds:

“Once we have held that reputation of an individual is a basic element of Article 21 of the Constitution and balancing of fundamental rights is a constitutional necessity and further the legislature in its wisdom has kept the penal provision alive, it is extremely difficult to subscribe to the view that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression.”

Previously, I have argued that this paragraph makes some fundamental conceptual errors in its understanding of what the chilling effect is. Be that as it may, let us now consider R. Rajagopal’s Case

In R. Rajagopal’s Case, the Supreme Court modified the common law of civil defamation. It replaced the no-fault liability standard with either a New York Times v Sullivan standard of actual malice, or the English standard of reasonable publication (I say “either” because the judgment seemingly adopts both tests, which are actually very different). Crucially, it cited New York Times v Sullivan, and cited that exact paragraph where Sullivan held that no-fault liability causes a chilling effect upon free speech. It then made the following finding:

“… in the case of public officials, it is obvious, right to privacy, or for that matter, the remedy of action for damages is simply not available with respect to their acts and conduct relevant to the discharge of their official duties. This is so even where the publication is based upon facts and statements which are not true, unless the official establishes that the publication was made (by the defendant) with reckless disregard for truth. In such a case, it would be enough for the defendant (member of the press or media) to prove that he acted after a reasonable verification of the facts; it is not necessary for him to prove that what he has written is true.”

In other words, Rajagopal holds that in case of statements defaming public officials, the standard is the (Sullivan) standard of reckless disregard for the truth. It’s reason for doing so is the chilling effect caused by a no-fault liability standard (and in fact, that can be the only reason for doing so, since that was at the heart of Sullivan). Consequently, the proposition that a no-fault liability standard causes a chilling effect in case of defamation is part of the ratio decidendi of Rajagopal. As recently as 2015, in M/s Fibre Boards v CIT, the Supreme Court clarified that the ratio of a case includes the reasons that form part of its conclusion (paragraph 27)

It may be argued at this stage that Rajagopal was a civil defamation case, and the question of what to do about criminal defamation was left open by that bench. That is true; however, that a no-fault liability provision for defamation causes a chilling effect upon speech is agnostic about whether the liability might take civil or criminal form. The reasoning given in Sullivan was that an individual who will be required to take the stand and prove the truth of his statement in order to avoid liability, will tend to self-censor, and “steer clear of the unlawful zone”, thus impoverishing public discourse. In other words, the chilling effect is caused by the legal standard (no-fault liability), and not by the nature of the liability (chilling effect).

For this reason, Subramaniam Swamy’s finding that criminal defamation’s no fault liability does not chill speech is reached in ignorance of Rajagopal, and is therefore per incuriam.

Even if this argument fails – i.e., even if one believes that since Rajagopal was about civil defamation, it’s ratio cannot be extended to cover cases of criminal defamation – Subramaniam Swamy remains per incuriam under the broader definition of Sundeep Kumar Bafna. This is a much simpler case to prove. After Swamy, the legal standard for imposing criminal liability (no-fault) is lower than civil liability (Sullivan) in case of public officials. This overturns the legal system on its head, and leads to an illogical position as long as both decisions continue to hold the field. In terms of Bafna, it is impossible to “reconcile the ratio” of Subramaniam Swamy with R. Rajagopal.

I submit, therefore, that Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India is per incuriam, and therefore a judgment that has no legal validity and does not serve as precedent for future cases. It is to be hoped that on an appropriate occasion, a future bench of the Supreme Court will consider these arguments while deciding whether or not to refer another constitutional challenge to criminal defamation for resolution by a bench of five judges (as Article 145 of the Constitution requires).


Filed under Chilling effect, Defamation, Free Speech, Per Incuriam

The Supreme Court’s Criminal Defamation Judgment: Glaringly Flawed

In a judgment delivered today, a two judge bench of the Supreme Court rejected the constitutional challenge to criminal defamation, and upheld the validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. The opinion was written by Justice Dipak Misra. In this post, I shall discuss the judgment which, unfortunately, commits several glaring errors. Before that, however, let us briefly recall the case against criminal defamation. Article 19(2) of the Constitution permits “reasonable restrictions” upon the freedom of speech, “in the interests of… defamation.” Article 19(2) is silent about whether “defamation” includes both civil and criminal defamation. The word “reasonable”, according to the judgments of the Supreme Courts, requires a relationship of proportionality between the degree to which free speech is infringed, and the corresponding interest at stake. In its public order cases, for instance, the Supreme Court has held that “reasonable” restrictions upon the freedom of speech in the interests of public order must only be limited to speech that “incites” others to public disorder.

The first attack against Section 499 was that by criminalising what is essentially a private wrong, the Section amounted to a disproportionate restriction upon free speech. Private wrongs – that is, wrongs to individuals at the hands of other individuals – are meant to be pursued through the civil courts, with damages and compensation as the remedy. It is only when there is a public element to the wrong (e.g., murder endangering the peace of the society as a whole) that the State steps in (interestingly, there was a public element involved at the time that defamation was first criminalised, in England – it was to stop people from resorting to duels in order to vindicate their honour).

Secondly, iR. Rajagopal’s Case, decided in 1994, the Supreme Court considered the relationship between free speech and civil defamation. The Court held that the common law of defamation, as it then stood, unreasonably restricted speech under Article 19(1)(a). This was because common law defamation imposed a regime of no-fault liability: in case of factual errors, the speaker could not escape liability by showing that she had taken reasonable care in checking the veracity of her statement. Following the established jurisprudence from the United States and Europe, which had modified civil defamation law in order to bring it in line with the guarantee of freedom of speech, the Supreme Court adopted the “Sullivan test“: in making statements about public officials, speakers were liable only if it could be shown that they had acted with “actual malice” – that is, having knowingly spoken falsely, or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

The concept of “reasonableness” in the context of defamation and free speech, therefore, was considered and decided by the Court in Rajagopal. Now criminal defamation, under Section 499 of the IPC, contains a far lower threshold than this. It follows pre-Rajagopal law in criminalising false statements without regard for due care, and also adds an additional “public interest” requirement to the defence of truth (in civil law defamation, if it can be shown that the statement was true, there is no liability). The core of this argument, therefore, is that the regime of criminal liability set up by Sections 499 and 500 goes beyond the “reasonableness” requirement of Article 19(2).

It is vitally important to distinguish the first and the second argument. According to the first argument, criminalising defamation per se is unconstitutional. According to the second argument, the legal regime of defamation as set out in Sections 499 and 500, is unconstitutional. Unfortunately, it is a distinction that is entirely lost upon the Court. In its judgment, the Court spends reams and reams of pages dealing with the apparent importance of reputation, and how criminalising defamation is proportional. However, it pays no attention to the fact that the language of Section 499 sets up an even harsher regime than was found to be unconstitutional in Rajagopal, in the context of civil defamation. As a result, we now have a truly bizarre position in Indian law: civil defamation law is more speech protective than criminal defamation law. This turns jurisprudence entirely on its head.

The judgment itself is difficult to read and analyse. It is 268 pages long, and most of it is irrelevant, since it either describes various judgments, or incorporates quotations from various sources such as the Gita, and Patrick Henry. Very broadly, however, this seems to be the flow of the judgment. The first 69 pages are spent in rehearsing the submissions of counsel. Pages 69 to 73 are spent discussing the meaning of “defamation” (on which there was really no controversy). On Page 73, there is a heading titled “Concept of Reputation“, with sub-headings such as “Vision of the Ancients” and “Thoughts of Creative Writers and Thinkers.” Following this, judgments from various Courts are excerpted that talk about the importance of “reputation”, with the conclusion that the right to reputation is an “inseparable facet of Article 21.” (page 97) This goes on until page 97.

From page 98, the Court considers the freedom of speech and expression. It spends about twenty-five pages dealing with a submission that seems to be something of a straw man: that the word “defamation” under Article 19(2) ought to be read in conjunction with “incitement to an offence“, which follows it, and therefore be given a restricted meaning. After citing extensively from the Constituent Assembly Debates, the Court rejects this submission. Without going into the merits of the Court’s examination of the Constituent Assembly Debates, this argument proves nothing. The core of the case against criminal defamation is not that the word “defamation” under Article 19(2) must be read to exclude criminal defamation, but that criminalising defamation in the manner that the Indian Penal Code does is an unreasonable restriction upon free speech.

From page 123, the Court considers the argument that criminalising defamation is disproportionate, since defamation is a private wrong. The Court observes:

“Individuals constitute the collective. Law is enacted to protect the societal interest. The law relating to defamation protects the reputation of each individual in the perception of the public at large. It matters to an individual in the eyes of the society. Protection of individual right is imperative for social stability in a body polity and that is why the State makes laws relating to crimes. A crime affects the society. It causes harm and creates a dent in social harmony. When we talk of society, it is not an abstract idea or a thought in abstraction. There is a link and connect between individual rights and the society; and this connection gives rise to community interest at large.” (page 123)

This, however, is no reasoning at all, since it effectively dissolves the distinction between private and public wrongs altogether. If individuals make up society, and if therefore a wrong to an individual is ipso facto a wrong to society, then there’s no such thing as an individual wrong in the first place.

The Court attempts to buttress its argument by citing numerous English authorities that have questioned the distinction between public and private wrongs. At the end of its citations, however, it accepts the distinction as lying between the violation of individual civil rights, and breaches of “public” rights or duties. (page 127) The Court then spends a few pages extracting quotations from various judgments that talk about what constitutes a crime. At the end of it, it observes that “it cannot be stated that the legislature cannot have a law to constitute an act or omission done by a person against the other as a crime. It depends on the legislative wisdom.”

No further analysis is offered on this point. The main contention – that criminalising a private wrong is a disproportionate – and therefore, unreasonable – restriction upon free speech, is not considered by the Court.

From page 138, the Court embarks upon a topic titled “Sanctity and significance of freedom of speech and expression in a democracy.” The next 30 pages may be skipped, as the Court extracts quotations from various judgments dealing with value of freedom of speech in a democracy. From page 166, it begins a discussion on “reasonable restrictions”. Various judgments are extracted. The Court sums up its discussion by observing that “The principles as regards reasonable restriction as has been stated by this Court from time to time are that the restriction should not be excessive and in public interest.” (page 175) This, it bears repeating for the umpteenth time, is entirely incorrect. Article 19(2) does not have a public interest restriction. Numerous judgments, from Shreya Singhal to Sakal Papers, have pointed this out. Other sub-clauses under Article 19 do. The Court cannot justify restrictions upon the freedom of speech by invoking public interest. It is extremely unfortunate that this basic textual error continues to be made, sixty-five years after the Constitution.

From reasonable restrictions, the Court then leaps straight to Article 21. No analysis is given about the link between the two. Under a heading called “Balancing of Fundamental Rights”, commencing from page 182, the Court deals with “balancing” the right to reputation under Article 21, and the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). After spending a few pages dealing with various cases on balancing rights, the Court then cites the In Re Noise Pollution Case (whose incorrect reasoning I had commented on a few days ago) to hold:

“Reputation being an inherent component of Article 21, we do not think it should be allowed to be sullied solely because another individual can have its freedom. It is not a restriction that has an inevitable consequence which impairs circulation of thought and ideas. In fact, it is control regard being had to another person’s right to go to Court and state that he has been wronged and abused. He can take recourse to a procedure recognized and accepted in law to retrieve and redeem his reputation. Therefore, the balance between the two rights needs to be struck. “Reputation” of one cannot be allowed to be crucified at the altar of the other’s right of free speech.”

Except that, this is a complete non-sequitur. It is nobody’s case that reputation be “crucified” at the altar of free speech. The Court needs to explain why taking away a criminal remedy amounts to “crucifying” reputation. It does not even attempt to do so.

Matters grow worse in the next paragraph, however, because the Court then says:

“Once we have held that reputation of an individual is a basic element of Article 21 of the Constitution and balancing of fundamental rights is a constitutional necessity and further the legislature in its wisdom has kept the penal provision alive, it is extremely difficult to subscribe to the view that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression.” (page 199)

If the previous passage contained a non sequitur, then this one is simply incorrect. Whether or not criminal defamation has a chilling effect is entirely independent of whether reputation is a basic element of Article 21, and legislative “wisdom” in keeping it alive. The chilling effect refers to the manner in which over-broad and severe laws “chill” speech. It takes the existence of a law as a given, and it is that law which must be examined for its chilling effect. Instead, the Court seems to be saying that the existence of a law means that there can never be a chilling effect!

On page 205, the Court begins an examination headed by the ominous phrases “constitutional fraternity” and “fundamental duty“. After excerpting some passages on the meaning of fraternity, it then says that “The individual should have all the rights under the Constitution but simultaneously he has the responsibility to live upto the constitutional values like essential brotherhood – the fraternity – that strengthens the societal interest. Fraternity means brotherhood and common interest.” (page 208)

This is all very well as a moral point, but as a legal standard, it’s rather vague and entirely irrelevant. It was not enough that the right to freedom of expression could be restricted on the eight grounds stipulated in Article 19(2). It was not enough that the Court would then bring in a boundless Article 21, and use it as a sword to cut down free speech further. Over and above all of that, the Court introduces a further ground for restricting speech: the “duty” of “constitutional fraternity”. At this stage, it is difficult to see what remains of Article 19(1)(a). The Court follows this up with an even more disturbing discussion about “constitutional duties” under Part IVA of the Constitution (which are expressly unenforceable), holding that “respect for the dignity of another is a constitutional norm. It would not amount to an overstatement if it is said that constitutional fraternity and the intrinsic value inhered in fundamental duty proclaim the constitutional assurance of mutual respect and concern for each other’s dignity.” (page 214 – 215) “Fraternity” and “fundamental duties”, neither of which are found anywhere in Article 19(2) or Part III, have become tools to restrict the freedom of speech and expression.

The Court spends the next thirty pages of its judgment examining the scope of Section 499 itself. After citing many judgments, it comes to the conclusion that the provisions of Section 499 are not vague. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, however, it fails entirely to deal with the issue of no-fault liability as disproportionate under Article 19(2). In fact, it goes further, and justifies the additional public interest requirement under the First Exception, in the following way:

“… examples pertain to an imputation that a person is an alcoholic; an imputation that two family members are involved in consensual incest; an imputation that a person is impotent; a statement is made in public that a particular person suffers from AIDS; an imputation that a person is a victim of rape; and an imputation that the child of a married couple is not fathered by the husband but born out of an affair with another man. We have set out the examples cited by the learned senior counsel only to show that there can be occasions or situations where truth may not be sole defence. And that is why the provision has given emphasis on public good.”

This, however, seems to be an unnecessary requirement. If I correctly state that you suffer from AIDS, or have been born out of an adulterous affair, then I may be liable to you in an action for privacy. Why would this lead to an action for criminal defamation? And why, when there exists a remedy in a claim for privacy, is there a need to have an additional remedy for criminal defamation?

The Court concludes (more or less) with the following observation:

“One cannot be unmindful that right to freedom of speech and expression is a highly valued and cherished right but the Constitution conceives of reasonable restriction. In that context criminal defamation which is in existence in the form of Sections 499 and 500 IPC is not a restriction on free speech that can be characterized as disproportionate. Right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other. Protection of reputation is a fundamental right. It is also a human right. Cumulatively it serves the social interest.”

The last twenty pages of the judgment deal with the procedure for defamation under Section 199 CrPC, which I will not examine here.

At the end of all this, however, the following points should be clear. The Court spends 268 pages excerpting quotations, extracting cases, and making blanket assertions without justification. It fails to do the following:

(a) Explain how defamation is a public wrong (stating that society is an aggregation of individuals does not count)

(b) Explain why, if defamation is a private wrong with elements of a public wrong, criminalisation is a proportionate response

(c) Explain why no-fault liability and an added test of public good in the defence of truth is proportionate and reasonable, especially in the light of Rajagopal’s Case, and consistent jurisprudence from across the common law world

(d) Explain why the chilling effect is not a valid concern

(e) Explain why the “balancing” between the enumerated right to freedom of speech and the unenumerated right to “reputation” under Article 21 yields criminalising defamation as the solution

(f) Explain how fraternity and fundamental duties have become independent grounds to restrict free speech

In addition, the judgment continues the profoundly disturbing trend of using Article 21 as a sword to limit other fundamental rights, an issue I had written about a few days ago.

Lastly, the judgment is difficult to analyse not only because of conceptual slippages and screaming silences where there should be argument, but also because of its language. What, for instance does it mean to exposit “cavil in its quintessential conceptuality and percipient discord“? What is an “asservation“? What is an “oppugnation“? What does it mean to say that “reputation is fundamentally a glorious amalgam and unification of virtues which makes a man feel proud of his ancestry and satisfies him to bequeath it as a part of inheritance on posterity“? Do Judges not have a duty to write clearly, stick to the point, and give reasons for their conclusions? Unfortunately, the indiscipline with which the Court examines the law and the Constitution here, is equally matched by its indiscipline with language.

The result is not pleasant.





Filed under Defamation, Free Speech

The Criminal Defamation hearings have begun – and they’re off to a bad start

Today, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court began to hear the constitutional challenge to Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC, which criminalise defamation. This is a hugely significant free speech case, for many reasons. Section 499 has been on the statute books since 1860, and this is the first time that the Supreme Court is hearing a frontal challenge to its constitutionality; the many abuses of criminal defamation as a weapon to silence investigative journalism are well-documented; furthermore, this is the first case after Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, where a legal provision has been challenged on the ground of Article 19(1)(a), and it gives the Supreme Court a chance to build upon the progressive jurisprudence advanced in that case.

The Centre for Communications Governance at NLU-Delhi has reported the first day of the hearings, and we seem to have gotten off to a rather bad start. CCG reports:

“The Attorney General at the outset requested the court to refer the matter to a constitutional bench as per Article 145(3) of the Indian Constitution. The bench however did not seem very inclined and provided examples of multiple cases in the recent past including Suresh Kumar Koushal and Shreya Singhal which were decided by a two judge bench. In response the Attorney General submitted that if in other instances the correct course was not followed, that should not be a reason to not refer the matter in the present case. Mr. TR Andhyarujina, who has been appointed as an amicus in the case also supported the Attorney General’s contention. The Court has allowed the Union of India to raise this issue in their final arguments and has agreed to answer it in the final judgment.”

Actually, I’d love to read the final judgment just to find out what reasons the Court invents to justify not referring this case to a Constitution Bench. Article 145(3) states:

The minimum number of Judges who are to sit for the purpose of deciding any case involving a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution or for the purpose of hearing any reference under Article 143 shall be five.”

If challenging the constitutionality of criminal defamation on the touchstone of Article 19(1)(a) is not a “substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution“, then what is? Whichever way you lean on this issue, it is undeniable that the case will raise some complex and significant questions of constitutional law. Since Article 19(2) specifically mentions defamation as one of the grounds on which speech can be restricted, the Petitioners’ arguments will have to impugn its reasonableness. In other words, Petitioners will need to argue that the very fact of criminalising defamation violates Article 19(2)’s requirement of reasonableness – both procedurally and substantively. This, in turn, will require the Court to go deep into the the scope of “reasonableness”, and apply it to an entirely novel set of contentions. Furthermore, it will require the Court to take into account two divergent branches of law – civil defamation and criminal defamation – and examine them in light of each other. This is because in Rajagopal’s Case, civil defamation has already been modified in order to bring it into conformity with Article 19(1)(a), but the same has not been done for S. 499. At this stage, therefore, we have two divergent regimes of defamation law, with radically different standards: civil defamation, that requires the New York Times vs Sullivan test of actual malice, and is heavily in favour of speakers; and Section 499, whose defences require the speaker not just to prove the truth of his statement, but also that he made it in public interest. Contrary to civil defamation, this stacks the deck against the speaker almost as far as it is possible to go. Whatever decision the Court takes, it will be faced with the complex task of harmonising the two facets of defamation, or explaining why differential standards are justified when it comes to free speech.

Lastly, the pragmatic implications are immense: the Court is asked to rule upon the constitutional validity of an entire legal regime – that of criminal defamation. It is not simply S. 499 at stake, but also the sentencing provision (S. 500), as well as the CrPC provisions, such as S. 199, which lay out the procedure for prosecution. The judgment, therefore, has the potential to bring about far-reaching changes in the law. By any standards, this is a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution, and ought to be decided by a bench of five judges. The references to Koushal vs Naz and Shreya Singhal are – as the Attorney-General rightly pointed out – compounding an error. Both those cases ought to have been decided by a Constitution Bench. The constitutional validity of S. 377 would – and did – require the Court to venture into wholly unexplored terrain in the realm of equality, non-discrimination and privacy; and the constitutional validity of S. 66A likewise required the Court to investigate a series of crucial concepts such as over-breadth, vagueness and the chilling effect, and determine their place in the constitutional scheme. This case simply continues the trend whereby matters of critical constitutional importance are being decided by a two-judge bench. The inevitable effect of this is a fragmentation of doctrine, the erosion of stare decisis, and the incremental erasure of the rule of law.

CCG further reports:

“The bench clarified that it will only be dealing with the issue of constitutionality of sections 499 and 500 of IPC and will not look into how these sections are applied. The bench also stated that it cannot abolish a provision as that is the job of the parliament, it can only look at the constitutionality of the provision.

The Attorney General also dealt with the issue of criminal and civil defamation and stated that a civil suit for damages in such instances keeps pending for years and there is hardly any award provided, nor is there any deterrence effect whereas criminal provision at least has some deterrence effect. He also compared the situation to the English system and was supported by Mr. Andhyarujina and both of them stated that unlike the India system its easy to approach the civil court for damages in such cases and obtain a relief whereas in India the system should be kept in mind. However, the bench reiterated that it will only examine the constitutionality of the sections and the system that exists for civil defamation and the time take to decide such suits will have no bearing on that.”

Unfortunately, the Court gets this wrong. The issue of application is critically important to a fair adjudication of this case, because at the petitioners’ contentions are founded upon the procedural unreasonableness of the fact of criminalising defamation. Procedural unreasonableness can only be established before the Court by describing how the criminal process actually works. Criminal defamation chills speech precisely because it is possible to harass speakers by filing multiple cases in different parts of the country, because the pre-charge stage drags on for years, and because defences are only available at the time of trial. Instances of misapplication are the best evidence of how the criminal procedure is manipulated to chill speech.

Similarly, the fact that civil remedies are largely toothless is significant because, as Shreya Singhal reminded us, to be constitutional, speech restricting statutes must be drawn narrowly. A crucial aspect of the petitioners’ case will be that the criminal defamation provision is not drawn narrowly precisely because there exists a narrower remedy – civil defamation, which infringes upon rights to a lesser degree, while performing the function of protecting peoples’ reputation. The Union, therefore, should be entitled to show that the way things are in India, the civil remedy is no remedy at all; consequently, S. 499 ought to be upheld, because it is the narrowest possible way in which the legislature can achieve its goal of protecting reputation.

What the above paragraphs demonstrate is that – as the Court recognised in V.G. Row so many years ago – context is crucial in any reasonableness enquiry. The Court has to look at the importance of the State’s professed goal, the extent to which rights are being curtailed to achieve it, and the proportionality between the two. In the case of criminal defamation, that context is precisely the workings of the civil and criminal process in India. In blinkering oneself to these realities, the Court risks writing a judgment that fails to be roooted in reality.

These are early days, and I hope that my pessimism turns out to be unfounded. But it seems to me that right at the outset, the Court has made two rather serious blunders: refusing to refer this case to a Constitution Bench, and refusing to listen to arguments about the application of S. 499. Whatever the outcome, the judgment – as well as free speech jurisprudence – will be much the poorer for these blunders.


Filed under Defamation, Free Speech